August RITTER (1811-1885)
Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 23 (1855) [20:10]
Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 11 (1845) [12:26]
Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 19 (1850) [13:44]
Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op. 31 (1856) [16:11]
Michael Harris (organ)
rec. 1-3 September 2015, Kirche Altleisnig, Polditz, Germany.

A contemporary of Liszt and Wagner, August Gottfried Ritter was born in the university city of Erfurt, deciding early on that his musical career should be closely connected to the organ both as composer and performer. His is a lasting legacy in terms of teaching, both in his own practice and with a number of durable publications on the art of organ playing.

Ritter’s First Organ Sonata would have been the first of its kind to be published, but due to some delay he was beaten by a year to this record by Mendelssohn. This work mixes the language of the Baroque period with bold chromatic statements that are more associated with Liszt, as is the move towards cyclical form which sees the main theme transformed and used throughout the work. Divided into five fairly compact movements, the contrast between three mighty Allegro movements with two gentle Andantes gives the piece a suite-feel, with grand Bach-like cadences greeting us as a conclusion to the complications in those more monumental outer and central movements.

The Second Sonata has a more literary feel than the first, with a lyrical main theme and a dramatic opening gesture that functions as material for a virtuoso finale. The Third Sonata is dedicated to Liszt and builds confidently on the cyclical structure of the previous sonatas, developing and elaborating on thematic ideas to a greater extent and further exploring chromaticism. Ritter enjoys a ‘recitative style’ in some of these works, extending wordless narratives over sparing chords in the second movement of this Third Sonata before launching on an attractive aria to follow. The Fourth Sonata falls into two movements, the second of which is a set of variations around a tune used as the Dutch national anthem at the time, reflecting the work’s dedication to organist Jan van Eijken.

These works are played stylishly by Michael Harris on an instrument completed in 1868 and built by Friedrich Ladegast. The instrument has remained relatively unspoilt despite the need for thorough restoration after neglect of the Polditz church. The sound we have here can therefore be confidently taken as ‘authentic’ for the period and it suits Ritter’s music well in not being too overblown. The Kirche Altleisnig acoustic is not vast, nor is it too dry; though don’t expect a cathedral experience from this recording. The Priory label has a fine reputation when it comes to organ recordings, and it takes little imagination to imagine yourself at the venue. There is some mechanical noise from the instrument, so it is probably just as well the microphone placement is not too close, the balance feeling like ‘best seat in the house’ rather than a virtuoso attempt to deliver a stereo sonic spectacular. Ritter’s music is technically excellent though I wouldn’t go as far to say that his music is inspirational and memorably distinctive. This is a snapshot of a significant but rarely heard organist’s output and is certainly entertaining as well as being of academic interest, though you’ll be most likely to appreciate Ritter’s music if you are a real enthusiast for his times.

Dominy Clements

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